Pixar make their debut on Disney+ with Soul, a charming animation that follows the life of music teacher and jazz aficionado Joe, who’s voiced by Oscar winner Jamie Fox, his character marking the first time that an African-American protagonist has led one of their films. In typical Pixar fashion there are numerous layers to unearth here as the film tackles some of the more ponderous questions of life and indeed, the afterlife. It’s not their best work to date but then Pixar’s line-up is one of the finest and most enviable collections in cinematic history. I mean, what could top Toy Story?
Soul is about purpose and our perpetual need as human beings to find it. Straight away we feel Joe’s wide-eyed fascination with jazz and unwavering ambition to play with the big boys, his purist idealisms repelled by his financially conscious mother, who encourages a more stable route for a middle-aged man. A theme many artists no doubt struggle with on daily basis: chase the dream or settle for mediocrity?
Just as things look to be coming together for Joe, he ends up in the Great Beyond, a kind of halfway house between life and death. Unwilling to have his dreams crushed this close to realising them, he attempts to escape the clutches of death which inadvertently lands him somewhere even stranger, the Great Before.
I won’t give too much away here because it’s best left to discover the clever intricacies of the world Pixar has built but in brief, the Great Before is a place where souls are allocated traits before heading to earth. Here we’re introduced to Tina Fey’s character, 22. She’s ran the circuit more than a few times earning herself a negative reputation because of her inability to derive joy from virtually anything.
22’s cynicism and Joe’s desperation to return home make for a perfectly dysfunctional pairing. The two characters work very well together, there has been some public criticism of Pixar’s decision to employ a middle aged white woman (Tina Fey) to play a juvenile “soul” but like most of the other poorly informed cancel culture opportunists in recent memory, it really, really, doesn’t matter or have any effect on how the film is absorbed. I’m sure if Kemp Powers (the African-American co-writer of Soul) had an issue with the casting he would have objected long before production began. If it’s good enough for Kemp, it’s good enough for me!
There are some other notable performances amongst the cast such as Graham Norton, Angela Bassett, Rachel House and Richard Ayoade, all of whom bring piles of charisma and life to the film.
As is the case with all Pixar animations, the art style here is gorgeous. There’s a sparsity to Soul that I’ve not seen before. The way that simple lines, shapes and muted tones have been used to portray the otherworldly experiences are as intriguing as they are fascinating. Soul’s abstract design is used to its credit and represents a complete departure from what we’re used to seeing from them.
This is a film centred around jazz, so it’s presumed that we’ll see multiple references to the forefathers of the genre and the iconic, infectious style that the musicians submit to on stage. There’s just something about jazz that manages to enrich the world around it, whether you’re a fan or not, its coolness can’t be denied.
For all of its originality and boldness though, Soul finishes just shy of greatness. It has all of the cornerstones that its contemporaries had but there’s a lack of emotional connection to its characters and world. Which sounds silly to say after praising so much about it all but as Soul pulls you through its journey and eventually comes to an end, I’m left feeling a little void that it wasn’t able to fill. Another example of this was with The Good Dinosaur; all the makings of a classic but something was missing. Still, none of that is to say that it’s poor or not worth your time, it absolutely is, I’m just saying you likely won’t place it next to Toy Story or Inside Out.
Pixar offers up something different this time around with a film daring to explore some heftier themes and also by making its mark as their first African-American led feature. Soul’s mesmerising art style and captivating jazz melodies compliment a sweet and enjoyable journey that’s worth your time but it doesn’t quite hit the height of its predecessors due to a lack of connection to its core characters.